How to Chart a Song

If you have read my blog at all you will know that I am a proponent of notated charts, not of lyrics and chord charts or just a melody with chords over it.

To understand why I believe in notated charts, read my previous posts:

What Kind of Music Charts Should I Use?
6 Ways Notated Charts Can Strengthen Your Church

For this post I am focusing on how to chart a song you have not written.  Writing a chart for your own song is a different story.

Charting a song by another artist requires certain tools:

  1. A good mp3 or recording.  Carefully choosing the mp3 helps your team and helps you.  Find a recording that is high quality and that has the style you are looking for. I talk about the role of recordings here.
  2. A metronome.  I use Frozen Ape on my iPhone, but a simple adjustable tick-tock will do.
  3. Software.  Gone are the days of longhand.  Get Finale.  I am a huge proponent of this software and have been using it since 1991.  Finale enables you to set templates, play your music back, adjust and edit music quickly, and much more.  The learning curve can be steep, but the work is worth it.  If you are in a church or academic institution you can take advantage of a huge discount.
  4. A basic understanding of music theory.  You do not need to be able to analyze symphonies or understand jazz chord structures.  You simply need to be able to identify a chord when you hear it as I, IV, V, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, etc.
  5. A good ear attached to a good mind.  Yeah, here’s the rub.  You can’t use the other tools if you do not have this.  You must be able to listen to a recording and distinguish individual parts, and then you have to be able to notate what you hear.  This takes practice, but you can do it!
  6. Patience and humility.  Your first charts will have lots of mistakes.  Expect it, and be ready to graciously say, “Thanks for pointing that out.  I will fix it,” rather than getting defensive because someone pointed out that you are human.  You will get better and more confident as you do this more and more.

Before we jump in to the details, let me show you the end product.  Here are parts of a completed chart (I’m not posting the whole thing due to copyright concerns, which is another issue altogether).


OK, so once you have gotten the tools at hand and figured out how to use them, here are the steps I follow in writing all of my charts.  Ready?

  1. Figure out the tempo marking with your metronome and a word or two to describe the style.  For instance, Rock ballad quarter note = 80.  No wussy things like “Prayerfully” or “Hopefully.”  Always use words that a musician can act on.
  2. Figure out the primary time signature (4/4, 3/4, etc.) and key signature.  Both of these can change throughout the piece, but we will discover that as we go.
  3. Set up a grand staff.  The top one should be Vocal and the bottom one should be Rhythm.  I prefer to use a treble clef on the Vocal staff, but a bass clef on the Rhythm staff because I always begin with the bass.  More on that later.  Enter in all of the data (key and time signature, etc.).  In a program like Finale all of this is created for you at the very beginning in the set-up screen.  You enter in all of the values and it plugs them right in.
  4. Now listen to the recording closely all the way through.  Find any places where the time signature changes and notate that on the appropriate measure.  Often pop songs will add or subtract two beats in a 4/4 song for interest.  There are multiple ways to notate this, but just do what makes sense to you.
  5. Next, do the same for the key signature, notating the changes in the appropriate measure.
  6. Enter section numbers/letters/descriptors.  I give each section a letter and name: “A: INTRO,” “B: VERSE 1,” D: BRIDGE,” and so forth to facilitate learning and rehearsal.
  7. Now you should have a complete layout: Vocal and Rhythm staves, time signatures, key signatures, tempo markings, section markings, and the exact number of measures in the song.  If the song has an extended ending you just need to decide how much of that ending you want to include.
  8. Now listen through the recording and notate the bass line.  By bass line I mean the lowest note of the chord, not the bass part.
  9. Next figure out the chords over each bass note and enter them accordingly.
  10. Once the bass line and chords are entered, in Finale you can use the Clef tool and convert the Rhythm staff to the proper styles.  I use slash notation for straightforward, non-syncopated parts; rhythmic notation for parts that are syncopated or require rhythmic precision; and regular notation where I need for a musician to play exact notes.  I also occasionally notate the basic drum pattern at the beginning of a section.
  11. Now notate the melody in the Vocal staff.  If the melody varies from verse to verse, I generally (not always) make a decision to keep the verses identical in deference to the congregation, who needs to learn the song quickly.
  12. Enter lyrics.
  13. By this time you probably have listened to the song a dozen times.  Write in directions you want to give the team at certain points to help them.  Under the Rhythm staff I write in notes such as “fill,” E Gtr solo (electric guitar solo), “piano only,” “pads,” “kick on 2 & 4,” and so forth.  On the Vocal staff I write directions such as “unison 1st x,” “harmony 2nd verse,” and so forth.  These directions can save you tons of rehearsal time.
  14. Finally write the form of the piece in the upper left hand corner of the first page so that the band always has a cheat sheet to the structure.
  15. Now decide if you are going to sing the song in the key of the recording or change it.  A good rule of thumb is that the melody should go no higher than a “D” and no lower than a “D.”  A lot of melodies are rang-ey and break these rules, but the meat and potatoes of the song should be in this range so that the congregation can sing it easily.
  16. As you do the final layout of the music on the page, format the chart so that you have lots of white space, reduce the size of the music to 90%, and try to keep the music on two pages.  In Finale you can print individual Rhythm and Vocal charts.
  17. Print out the charts and read them as you listen to the song to find errors.  Fix them.  Be professional.  No colliding lyrics, lyrics covering chords, repeat signs covering the system above, and so forth.  Every detail can help you save time in rehearsal by giving you clarity.  If you do not have clarity you will waste time fixing it.
  18. Get the charts to your band and go for it.

This is a lot of information on how to chart a song, and there are a lot of subtleties I have not mentioned, but this is my basic process.  I have been developing this process for about 12 years now and I can pump out a basic tune in an hour or two.  At the end of that time period I know the song like the back of my hand and am ready to walk into a rehearsal and work with the band.

I am considering creating some Finale tutorials, so let me know if this has been helpful to you.

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What Kind of Music Charts Should I Use?

If you’ve spent any time with worship teams you’ve probably touched on the topic of chord charts and notated music. Musicians take this topic personally, so approach with care!

First of all, I want to clear up one thing: every worship team uses notation. The question is simply what kind of notation. “Notation” is a system of symbols designed to communicate to the musician what to sing or play. Chords over lyrics are notation. Chords over a notated melody line with the lyrics is notation. Exactly written out parts for violin, bass, drums, and so forth is another kind of notation.

If you are rolling your eyes with this “beginner” definition of notation, hang with me a moment. There is a method to my madness.

I compare musical notation with the primary kind of notation every single person on the planet uses: written language. The two are really no different. Authors use a specific collection of words and illustrations to evoke or communicate a truth or a feeling. Composers use a specific collection of symbols and lyrics to communicate truths and feelings through the medium of music.

So how do we choose? What is the deciding factor? Do we let dear Mary who loves playing the autoharp determine what kind of notation we use?  Uh, I don’t think so.  Or you don’t know me very well.

Here are a few things to consider.

Precision. How precisely do you want to communicate? If you are writing picture books you will only be able to reach a certain level of precision, but picture books are not meant to be precise. They are meant to be enablers for beginning readers and open to interpretation. In the same way chords over lyrics provide general direction with large amounts of room for personal interpretation. Chords over lyrics are also an easy step for beginning musicians. If, however, you are trying to specifically craft a musical moment, and especially if you are working with a large group of musicians, precision is going to require a more developed kind of notation.

Time. How much time do you have to prepare the music? If you have a several months to prepare a song and lots of rehearsal time for a rock band, less notation is going to be necessary.

How much time does your team practice each week? Do you even have a mid-week rehearsal? (If you don’t, quit reading this and call one. Now. You will get no where without one! And, no, Sunday morning does not count!)

If you do lots of music, you will need to choose between the following:

  • lots of easy music with simple charts
  • medium difficulty music with moderately complex charts
  • difficult music with complex charts
  • repeat the same tunes over and over and over so that you do not have to learn much new material.

If you have one shot to put something together in rehearsal, the chart needs to contain as much information as possible to assist the musician in preparation.

Ability. If your team is only learning to play their instruments and have no clue what it means to play together (You mean I have to listen to the other musicians?), it will not matter what you put in front of them. They are going to have their hands full starting and stopping together on Sunday, let alone providing interest throughout the song.

The team who is playing together well on standard worship repertoire (Tomlin, Brewster, Hillsong United) is ready to move to another level of notation and to reach another level of excellence in their musicianship.

Motivation. Eventually someone asks, “But why do I need to learn notation? Only the heart of worship matters, and when notated music is in front of me I can’t worship.” The kernel of truth here is that the heart of worship is what matters, but that is where the truth ends.

If your heart is all about worship, consider this. God calls each of us to give our very best to him as a sacrifice, something given not because it is easy but because he is worthy. If you have been at the same level musically for years, either you have reached the ceiling of your talent or you are staying comfortable.

If you have reached the ceiling of your talent, are you holding the team back from moving forward? If so, humbly admit it and decide if you should move on to allow the team to grow.

If you have not reached your ceiling, why are you not growing? This has everything to do with heart. Do not bury your talent. For the senior musician out there, God has no retirement plan. When your life purpose is finished he will take you home. Until then, keep growing.

Commitment. The final hurdle to taking growth steps in music can often be the musician’s level of commitment. Beware: challenging someone on their level of commitment is tantamount to asking them whether they have stepped out on their spouse. This is very personal, and you have to earn the right as a leader to speak about this. You also have to be modeling commitment. Otherwise, forget it.

Ultimately, a musician has to set aside extra time at home if he or she is to grow in their musicianship. If a musician says they want to grow but is unwilling to spend the extra time it takes, one of several things is at work. Either they truly are committed but their family life prevents them from spending more time, or they say they are committed but are change averse and refuse to put in the effort.

Vision. Ultimately, though, the decision comes down to you and the church’s vision. As a friend of mine used to say, does the church have a “minor leagues” or “all-stars” approach to arts? If they want all-stars, everyone on your team is going to have to step up or step down if you want to bring the church’s vision to fruition. If the church is about minor leagues and providing a place for everyone to serve and grow as long as they have a certain threshold of talent, then your approach is going to be completely different.

Conclusion. There is no silver bullet. Every situation is different, but I hope that you have a sense of the bigger picture when you are deciding what kind of notation to use. Don’t choose based on what is comfortable. Personally I will always lead my teams towards notated charts; I will talk about that later. I believe everyone can learn to read music, just like everyone can learn to read more than picture books (and once they do, they are usually glad they did!).